Nothing But Benefit

A pond-wetland complex in Port Aransas, Texas, attracts birders and nature lovers and helps clean treatment plant effluent in the bargain
Nothing But Benefit
Occupying nearly 10 acres of wetlands that include an 8-acre pond, the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center is a major tourist attraction to this city of nearly 3,500.

Officials in the Texas gulf coast City of Port Aransas will tell you that locating an avian center adjacent to the wastewater treatment plant has been nothing but a benefit.

“It brings in a lot of tourists and presents the plant as a good neighbor — which it is,” says Mark Young, district manager of the Nueces County Water Control & Improvement District No. 4, which owns and operates the plant.

Occupying nearly 10 acres of wetlands that include an 8-acre pond, the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center is a major tourist attraction to this city of nearly 3,500 full-time residents. Winter Texans swell that population to around 12,000.

 

Close collaboration

The center was created in 1994 from a vision of Young’s predecessor, Nona Sherrill. The effort coincided with a requirement of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department that the city provide mitigation and remedy for alterations made to a roadway at a separate city park project.

Once the city council approved the project, it took collaboration to ensure success. Key players included the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the USDA/Soil Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Port Aransas Independent School District, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The first goal was to secure a long-term lease from the Nueces County district for the land.

“The discharge of freshwater from the plant is the reason the pond is there,” says Young. And the pond anchors the wetland that birding enthusiasts say attracts vast numbers of waterfowl and other seasonal birds year-round. To aid the viewing experience, the city built a wooden walkway with rails that reaches more than 730 feet over the pond and shoreline. There are also three 10-foot-square observation decks and a 26-foot-tall observation tower.

 

Greeted by a mural

Visitors to the birding center park in a paved lot directly in front of the 1.88 mgd (design) activated sludge plant. Young says that to be a good neighbor, the plant team painted a 150- by 11-foot mural on the oxidation tank that faces the lot. The mural depicts water scenes with migrating birds and wildlife often seen in the area.

The project involved substantial community support, including business and civic leaders. Even the local garden club decorated the entrance and 300-foot gravel walkway that leads to the wooden walkway with native plants and grasses, such as seacoast bluestem and other primary vegetation. “Without the cooperation of a lot of people, the project would not have happened,” Young says.

 

Down with nutrients

Chief operator John McKinney says visitors to the birding center often include a tour of the plant. “It serves as a real good outreach to the community,” McKinney says. “And we also get several school groups each year.” The City of Port Aransas operates and maintains the birding center, and the land leased by the district must be held in perpetuity and be managed as an open space and natural area to maintain habitat for wildlife.

Young says effluent from the plant is even cleaner when it empties into the Corpus Christie Bay because of its flow through the birding center. For example, tests show a drop in phosphates from 4.8 to 1.1 mg/L, and nitrogen drops from 32.2 to 9.8 mg/L.

“It’s really just using an available resource,” says Young. “You have taken something in the worst part of town that no one wants to be around and made it into a valuable resource.”



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